Wednesday, July 30, 2008

July 30, 2008 - Safari Pictures!

I am starting to get my act together on the pictures, even though we still don't have internet at home (grrrr). I will post them slowly so that you aren't overwhelmed all at once. This is a slideshow of pictures from our safari to the Masai Mara with Kirsten and Hans. The last few pictures also show the drive we took around Lake Nakuru. Hans gets full credit for all of the pictures - he is a great photographer and saved us from the miscommunication Kristoffer and I had of not packing our camera! The lions were definitely my favorite part, and there are some amazing pictures here that really show off just how beautiful they were.



Enjoy!
LMW

Monday, July 28, 2008

July 28, 2008 - My contract!

It was a sad morning in Nairobi for sure when Kirsten and Hans left us to go back to Denmark, but the sun broke through the clouds a bit when I arrived at UNICEF to find that my contract was finally ready! It has been signed and sealed and as of Friday (August 1st) I am employed and paid by UNICEF for two months! This is great news because it will give me more credibility within UNICEF and for future work in Nairobi after this contract. Kristoffer and I are both happy, relieved and looking forward to the work I will be doing to assist UNICEF's efforts to provide basic education rights to children in post-election Kenya. I am also feeling fully recovered from my heart surgeries and my former sleeping disorder is completely resolved.

All is definitely well!
LMW

Sunday, July 27, 2008

July 27, 2008 - By Grace part 2

Kristoffer and I assured the women at By Grace that we would share their website and story with as many people as possible, and now that I have the website for you I will do so.

The website of the actual orphange is http://www.bygracecentre.org/. One thing that I didn't realize because it wasn't talked about so much when we were at the orphanage was that most, if not all, of the 250 children living at By Grace were orphaned by HIV/AIDS. 10% of Nairobi's population is infected with HIV/AIDS, which is higher than the country's average (6.1% of adults) because so many of the country's poorest people live in the slums of Nairobi where the disease is rampant.

Another interesting and useful website is http://www.brightfuturechildren.org/, an American organization that facilitates fundraising and volunteer efforts that benefit By Grace directly. The woman we met, Pixie, for example, is a volunteer through that organization. I know that many good causes are competing for your financial interests, but f you are interested in contributing to a project in Africa at all now or in the future, we can confirm that this is a worthwhile cause.

Kirsten and Hans leave us tomorrow and we will be in mourning for the week :) Yesterday we took them on a game drive through the Nairobi national park. We didn't see any big game like lions or rhinos (We never see them at the park! I am not convinced that there really are any!), but we did see the MOST interesting giraffe fight ever! It must be very rare to catch two giraffes in a physical fight, especially because they are animals with very good dispositions!, but we were just so lucky. They were pushing each other with their behinds and swinging their necks at each other's neck to try and inflict pain. We watched for a long time and it was totally fascinating. I am hoping to get our internet at home this week (do I sound like a broken record) and will try to post a video of the fight! Tonight we will go out to dinner for one last hurrah before Kirsten and Hans travel!

LMW

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

July 23, 2008 - By Grace

Our visit with Kristoffer's Mom and Hans continues to be eventful. On Saturday, the three of them spent the day climbing up and around Mt. Longonot, a volcanic crater just north of Nairobi. Kristoffer and I had climbed it in March (going up takes about 90 minutes) but had not climbed the rim of the crater (takes about 3 hours). The three of them, however, had a beautiful day for a climb and managed to do the whole thing (although their legs were sore the next day. It is a steep climb!). When Kristoffer and I climbed it we had only seen one lone giraffe, but this time they saw more wildlife.


The next day, the four of us visited an orphanage on the outskirts of Nairobi called "By Grace". At the WFP, Kristoffer is the "focal point" for developing relationships with orphanages and trying to find ways that the WFP can partner with them to assist more Kenyan children. Some of the women involved with By Grace, Jane (a Kenyan woman) and Pixie (an American volunteer), invited Kristoffer to come see the orphanage and so he decided to do it on the weekend and bring us with him.


Let me say, first of all, that I am sure there are hundreds of orphanages like this one in and around Nairobi but because this is the only one we've been to we happen to think that it is a special place. The actual orphanage is in a poor neighborhood, although not quite a slum, and its physical building is 3 floors and very run-down (actually disgusting, in my opinion). The 250 children who live at By Grace sleep in the rooms at night that are their classrooms during the school day and live with poor water and sanitation conditions. There are an additional 150+ children who do not live there but do come to By Grace for school, which follows the Kenya national curriculum taught by volunteer teachers. It is very hard to imagine that the conditions we saw, which were dirty and smelled like sewage, were better than other conditions the children might find themselves in if they were not living there.


After getting the tour of the orphanage and learning a bit about how the orphanage started (the "Mama" of the orphanage originally started taking street children into her own home, but then ran out of space and secured donations to rent the building across the street where the orphanage has been since 2002), we were greeted in their "play yard" (a small alley made of gravel) by all 250 resident orphans. They made several presentations to us of dancing and singing (it is a Christian orphanage so all performances were of a religious nature) before we each had to say something to the group. Kristoffer was a bit hit with the kids offering them advice on staying in school! I can honestly say that Kirsten and I were in tears when the children were singing to us about how hard their lives have been and how they have been saved by Jesus. It was extremely emotional to see these children, of all ages, living in squalor, who appeared to be so happy and grateful for their lives.


When all of this was over, each child came and shook each of our hands and thanked us for visiting them. Before leaving for the day, the leaders took us to see a plot of land nearby that they are hoping to buy; if they get this land they will build proper classrooms, dormitories, a play yard, etc. The work that these women do to provide a basic life and some security for these children is incredible, especially knowing that most of them would out of school, living on the street, or even not alive if not for By Grace. Hans and Kirsten were able to make a small donation to the orphanage that day, money that would be used to buy some fruit for the children to eat (they mostly eat 2 meals a day of rice or corn meal with fruit, meat, and milk as very rare treats). Kristoffer and I are hoping to establish a more consistent donation to the orphanage in the future.


I should mention something very interesting: based on a conversation we had with a Kenyan man back in January, Kristoffer and I knew that Kenyans are very opposed to international adoption. Kenyans believe that staying in your culture/tribe/family is the most important thing and if westerners adopt babies and bring them to other continents they consider that child to basically be stolen (Kenyans are not big Madonna fans, even though she adopted from Malawi). If a child has any family or tribe, those people will care for the child and a child should only end up in an orphanage under dire circumstances. OK fine - this we knew. But I asked the head teacher at By Grace if children were ever adopted domestically from this orphanage, and he was equally opposed to such a scenario. It appears that regular Kenyans wouldn't think to adopt from an orphanage (which seems very sad to me) and the orphanage strives to provide education and computer skill training in the absences of college so that children can get jobs when they are older and take care of themselves. Some of the children in the orphanage have relatives that visit or bring them home around the holidays, but usually the families are so poor or sick that they really cannot care for the children at all or the children have no living relatives.

It was both a heartbreaking and heartwarming experience for us to visit By Grace and I am sure we will back again! As soon as I am able, I will post pictures of our visit. I know I have a lot of pictures to post (house, Masai Mara, orphanage - yikes!)! Kirsten and Hans have been visiting the island of Lamu for the past few days and they will rejoin us in Nairobi tonight until they head back to Denmark on Monday. We miss them a lot when they leave and are wondering who our next visitor(s) will be!

LMW

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

July 16, 2008 - Masai Mara Safari

On Friday morning, Kristoffer, Kirsten, Hans and I left from Nairobi to embark on a true Kenyan safari to the Masai Mara in south western Kenya, on the border of Tanzania. The word Mara means “spotted” in the Masai language and this part of Kenya is called “the Mara” because the land is mostly open plains spotted by trees and animals. The land is also the native home of the Masai tribe – pastoralists who raise cows, goats, and sheep and live what we would consider to be a very primitive lifestyle (more on that to come). People from all over the world come to the Mara between July and October to see the “Great Migration” of around 1.3 million wildebeest (called “gnu” in both Swahili and Danish) and zebra across the Mara River from the Serengeti in Tanzania to Kenya. We were a little too early for the migration, but we did see thousands and thousands of “resident” wildebeest and zebra for sure.

The drive from Nairobi takes about 5 ½ hours and, to be honest, is not entirely pleasant. We wanted to see new parts of Kenya and so we made the journey by car…but we totally get why most other people fly! Most of the trip is just horribly bumpy, pot-holed, rough terrain but we did hit a few strips of good tarmac. It was pretty cool to see how much the country changes between Nairobi and the Mara; there is a town called “Narok” which is a transportation hub as it is the last place for fuel (or pretty much anything else!) before getting to the Mara and I think Kirsten and Hans were really fascinated to see all of the activity in this small town.

We arrived at the Karen Blixen Camp (www.karenblixencamp.com) in time for lunch; the reason for staying at this camp went beyond just the usual Karen Blixen Danish connection. We actually know the young Danish couple who own and operate this luxury camp (which is about two years old). The camp is located at a narrow point on the Mara River and from the main reception/dining tent we had amazing, daily views of 46 resident hippos, two crocodiles, and frequent visitors to the river such as zebra, elephants, giraffe, gazelles, impala, and baboons. It was easy to sit on the beautiful lawn and overlook the wildlife activity for hours. Also, our tents were amazing (and were bigger than my last apartment in Brooklyn)! The 22 tents at the camp have thatched roofs and inside look like rustic, old-school hotel rooms, complete with outdoor showers (heaven!). At night time you aren’t allowed to walk from your tent to the main tent without being accompanied by Masai guards, because the camp gets visits from hippos, lions, and other friends at night. The food was quite good and we definitely felt spoiled to stay in such an amazing camp.

Friday afternoon after we got settled, we met our Masai guide, Peter. Most people who come to the camp don’t have their own cars, so they are going in land cruisers with guides from the camp and other safari agencies. Because we had our own car, Peter came with us on all of our game drives to take us to places where we would be more likely to see specific animals than if we were venturing out on our own. Just like the guide Kristoffer and I had when we went to Naivasha at Christmas, Peter was amazing. Throughout our three days of driving with him, we learned so much about Kenyan animals and life on the Mara, the Masai people, the relationship between the Masai and Kenya’s tourism industry, and the changes that are taking place in traditional Masai culture.

Our first game drive was not very lucky – we didn’t see too many new and exciting animals, but Kirsten and Hans did see their first giraffe as we headed back to the camp in a rain storm. The second day, however, was very exciting. In the morning we took a lovely, peaceful nature walk with Peter and learned a bit about trees, plants and flowers, birds and some animals (from their dung and footprints!). In the afternoon, we took a game drive to a different area and finally came across our very first Kenyan lions! They were three lionesses, actually, resting within some bushes shaded from the afternoon sun. Two of them stayed asleep the whole time we were up close watching them, but one of them looked at us a bit more, even sitting all the way up to check us out at one point. They were so beautiful that I was shaking! That afternoon we also saw a live kill – not by lions, though, but we saw two jackals (sort of like foxes) hunt and kill a young gazelle. Of course, we were tempted to feel really bad for the little gazelle…but that is nature! We also came across a large herd of elephants that afternoon and enjoyed watching them eat so up close. What a day!

As if our second game drive hadn’t been enough, our third game drive was an even greater adventure. We left the camp at 6:30 in the morning with a packed breakfast to eat later in the morning. Our plan was to drive a bit of distance to this mountain park where some white rhinos live, and on the way we hoped to see some animals in the early morning hours. Well our hopes certainly came true! We quickly saw two lionesses (possibly two of the ones we had seen the day before) hunting for food. We didn’t see them kill anything, but in the surrounding area we could sense that all of the other animals were VERY tense as we watched the lions stalk through the high grass. As we continued driving, Hans noticed that there were two males lions in the grass. Good spot, Hans! Not only were they lying there but they were also feasting on a zebra! We parked to watch these amazing creatures, when another male lion approached and walked right in front of our car. When he joined his brothers, one of them left the group and walked behind our car. We could also see another female lioness in the distance. It was incredible! We were so lucky!

As we continued towards the rhinos we saw many, many hyena (which are usually hard to find in the day but it was still early morning) and they were actually eating a wildebeest! Such scavengers! And the vultures were all around them waiting for leftovers. We kept thinking that our day could not get any better! We did eventually stop in a hyena/lion-free area to eat our breakfast, and we had a beautiful view of some giraffes as we did so. If you have never eaten a packed breakfast out in the middle of the African bush, you should really try it! It was a little windy but the car provided some relief and it was extremely refreshing. We did finally make it to those rhinos and, of the four that live in that area, we saw three of them: one female, one male, and one baby. We were actually outside of our car walking with a guide and came across them so closely! But these rhinos must be somewhat used to humans because they were extremely tame and didn’t seem to either notice or be bothered by us. The baby rhino, we learned, was born during the post-election crisis when Kofi Annan was in Kenya to mediate the political stalemate; as it turns out, the guides who work there call this baby rhino Kofi Annan.

Our morning was amazing, but before we headed back to camp we paid a visit to a local Masai village. The village we went to is made up of about 25 families. Physically, the village was a large circle constructed of thick tree branches. Just inside were 25 huts/houses made of cow-dung around the circle with a completely open and empty center full of cow/goat/sheep DUNG because that is where the animals sleep at night. The thick branches protect the people and animals from animal predators at night, and then the young boys take the cattle out to graze and eat for the entire day. In order to get into the village, visitors (aka white people/mzungu) have to pay a fee – this money is crucial to the Masai’s economic survival. Once Kristoffer negotiated our price, our guide Peter introduced us to a young man named Elliot, who lived in this village and would be our guide inside. We learned that Elliot, 16, is the only boy in the whole village to go to secondary school and that he has aspirations of becoming a teacher. It sounded to us like Elliot is very eager to get out of his village – he said that it not his hope to live there when he gets older. It sort of made us wonder how the other young men, who did not get good marks in primary school, feel about having to stay in their village for the rest of their lives now.

We were greeted in the village by all of the women singing us a “Welcome Mzungu” song (literally…they sang the word for welcome in Masai over and over again followed by the word mzungu). Then the young men came out and did a traditional Masai Warrior dance and chant (which involves a lot of jumping). We noticed that one of the young men was wearing the mane of a lion as a hat on his head and were told that he is the oldest son of the village’s chief and in that position had to kill a lion, whose mane he was wearing. Later, we saw the scars he had on his body from the attack and learned that he had been in the hospital for 2 months recovering from the fight with the lion (which he won! How crazy is that?). Then we were encouraged to join the whole group in some singing and “dancing” (more like holding hands and walking around the cow-dung circle) for a little while and the women put jewelry on me and Kirsten. Note that we did not meet any of the Masai men – only women, older boys/young men, and small children/babies were around. And let me tell you how cute these babies were…except that it was a little bit heartbreaking to see them with bugs and flies all over them (but when you live in cow dung… that’s what you get).

Now the thing about this whole Masai greeting is that they were definitely putting on this “show” for us because we paid to come into the village to look at their life, and that is totally fine. They do actually live in that village, their houses are actually made of cow dung, and by our Western standards this was extreme poverty – that is not fake! But we sort of knew that they were putting on this show in their traditional clothes and jewelry for our benefit only, so we were all just kind of playing along. Underneath their traditional red clothing (cloth and blankets tied in various ways), the boys were all wearing shorts and t-shirts. I think the women’s clothing was a bit more “every day”. After the show we got a tour of one of their houses….talk about small, dark, and crowded! There were several small rooms in the house: one for baby goats and sheep to sleep (yes in the hut), one for the eldest son to sleep, one for the parents to sleep, one for all other children to sleep, and a room for cooking. After this tour, the women set up their jewelry and other traditional Masai keepsakes for us to browse through and buy. Their prices were SOOOO much higher than the prices we pay for the same stuff at the Masai Market in Nairobi so we didn’t buy too much (which to their dismay).

It was really an interesting experience – their culture is just so far from anything we could really ever imagine living. We also learned a lot about the Masai from Peter throughout our days with him. Older Masai traditionally only eat the milk, blood, and meat of their cattle, but younger Masai are eating more and different things, such as maize and rice (courtesy of programs like school feeding). The Masai still largely practice arranged marriages, as well as female circumcision. Peter could not believe it when we told him that in our countries female circumcision is illegal! The villages don’t have electricity and when the men want to trade or sell their cattle (which they are not largely in the practice of doing…they use cattle for celebrations/sacrifices/and making deals such as marriage dowries), they have to walk close to 100 km to the town of Narok to do so. But Peter also told us of some change that is happening within the Masai. For example, because he is educated (after secondary school he went to school to become a guide), he is allowed to choose his own wife and he does not have the same ear piercings (large, large holes) that non-educated Masai men have. The diet of young Masai is changing, and technology is making an impact so that some Masai even have cell phones. On the other hand, however, girls are still rarely educated in this culture and are not valued in the same way as boys.

After three days of these experiences, we were ready to leave on Monday morning. We were so grateful for Peter and for all of the amazing things we saw, as well as for the lavish hospitality of the Karen Blixen Camp. Our plan was to drive north from Narok to the city of Nakuru and to stay over night in the park there on Lake Nakuru. However, we couldn’t find affordable lodging for the night so we just drove up and around the Lake before heading back to Nairobi on Monday night. The national park around Lake Nakuru is known for having a lot of buffalo, rhino, flamingoes, and pelicans! We saw all of these animals in abundance here. In addition, we also saw about 5 more lions sitting right by the side of the path (literally, we almost missed them!), some more hyenas and giraffe. All in all, I think we saw every possible animal except for leopards and cheetah, which are extremely difficult to spot.

What a trip! After twelve hours of driving on Monday we were definitely tired (especially Kristoffer, who did all of the actual driving). Our big activity yesterday was picking out and ordering curtains for our entire house (with very helpful input from Kirsten and Hans) and having our new sofa for our upstairs living room delivered. It turned out beautifully! We love it and eagerly showed it off to our neighbors last night!

Kirsten and Hans have been here for one week and have seen and done so much! It was a great holiday and on Sunday they will be going to the beach island of Lamu for a few days by themselves. Kristoffer and I will stay back in Nairobi and enjoy our new sofa.

LMW

Thursday, July 10, 2008

July 10, 2008 - Visitors!

Kristoffer and I celebrated our first wedding anniversary on Sunday - thank you to many people for their best wishes. In our first year of marriage we have rented two apartments and one house, lived on two continents (the latter of which is a continent to which neither of us is native), started three different jobs between us (two for me, one for Kristoffer), bought our first car, become residents of a foreign country...and so much more. All in all, an amazing year that neither of us could have predicted.

Our anniversary was followed by the arrival of Kristoffer's mom, Kirsten, and her husband, Hans. Sadly for them, they had a HORRIBLE trip here. They were flying through London (Heathrow), which is often a nightmare in good weather but turned out particularly miserable because there was a storm. They weren't able to land because of the weather and had to go to another, smaller airport where they waited for hours to get their luggage and then had to take a bus to Heathrow. They arrived too late to make their connection (obviously!) and had a difficult time getting another flight to Nairobi. Who knew all the flights would be sold out - I guess people are starting to come back to Kenya now since the election. Anyway, they ended up getting on the flight 24 hours after their original connection so they arrived in Nairobi 24 hours late. They were in desperate need of sleep (no hotels room were available for them) and showers but were otherwise in good shape. On our end, we didn't get the message that they missed their flight on time, so we waited at the Nairobi airport for them for 3 hours before getting the information that would not be coming in as expected. It was the most disappointing airport trip ever - who goes to airport and leaves without the people they were supposed to pick up?! We were sad, but relieved that they were ok.

Since they arrived yesterday morning, we have given them a tour of the United Nations and taken them to one of our favorite restaurants. They visited the Karen Blixen Museum today on their own and they played tennis and swam at our gym. They seem to really like our house (which makes us feel great!) and we are just really enjoying having them with us. Last night we had "Christmas in July" because they brought us Christmas and birthday gifts from them and other family members - it was SOOOO fun! We were like little kids :) Tomorrow we leave for the Masai Mara where will go on a proper safari and stay in a nicely tented camp owned and run by some Danes we know here. It is actually called "the Karen Blixen Camp". I hope to report back with new pictures and stories - remember, something is always happening over here!

LMW

p.s. internet is being installed at our house this weekend - phew!

Friday, July 4, 2008

July 4, 2008 - Happy 4th of July!

While it is not Independence Day here in Kenya (that holiday is in December) it is certainly on my mind that my friends and family at home will be attending BBQs and watching fireworks today! It was just a normal working day here. I went to a meeting this morning and walked for an hour on the treadmill at the gym this afternoon. In 2 more weeks I can start exercising for real and I am very much looking forward to that. I fear that I have started to become a bit of a blob in the last two months!

On Wednesday, our cleaning woman, Catherine, started her work with us. When she came to the house, she and I then went to store to buy all of the supplies she would need, along with a uniform for her. Catherine was very happy with all of this, but I will admit that it was a very strange experience for me. She then proceeded to give our big house a good scrub which it really needed! As her frequency increases (by the fall she will be coming 3 times a week) and she can help with hanging up laundry (I cannot reach our clothes lines without a chair) and ironing I will be even more grateful. I think this was a good solution for us instead of having a full time person living with us.

We have also made progress towards getting internet at our house. We have found a good deal through the UN with a corporate internet service provider that is just starting to provide residential internet access. It is signficantly cheaper than the company we were using before so we are really happy about it; now we are just waiting for the appointment date and time.

Tonight we're having dinner at our neighbor's house (an American guy whose wife and kids are in the US for the summer) with our other neighbors and friends, Mike and Caroline (I worked with Mike at UNICEF in February and March), which we hope to be a very fun time. Making friends is good for us!

Happy 4th of July and have a great weekend :)
LMW